Fewer ministers

There's no reason for the taxpayer to fund the cost of a minister-without-portfolio.

cabinet oct. 30 298 (photo credit: AP)
cabinet oct. 30 298
(photo credit: AP)
On Monday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is again expected to try to gain Knesset approval for ministerial appointments. Thus far he couldn't muster the needed parliamentary majority but he is reportedly resolute that Ehud Olmert's transfer to the Treasury be linked to installing Roni Bar-On as industry, trade and labor minister and Ze'ev Boim as absorption minister. Sources in Sharon's entourage describe him as adamant enough to precipitate early elections if he fails. Sharon's official line is that Bar-On and Boim must be co-opted to improve the balance between the Likud and Labor in his cabinet. As things stand, the Likud is underrepresented since Sharon fired Uzi Landau and his disengagement policy caused the resignation of Natan Sharansky and Binyamin Netanyahu. At present it's 11 Likud ministers to eight Laborites. The Likud Knesset contingent, almost double Labor's, surely deserves proportionally greater representation. However, there's another way of achieving this. Instead of further expanding the cabinet, it can be streamlined. That would mean wresting portfolios from both component parties, based on a new ratio of the number of a faction's MKs to its ministers. We realize that this is easier said than done and that Labor won't easily surrender coveted ministerial positions. But his coalition's life expectancy is limited in any case, and he may not be able to enlarge his cabinet. Why then not leave his mark in a worthwhile fashion? Sharon knows, as does every Israeli, that the government is too large, especially when it boasts a record low number of component parties from which ministers are drawn - just two. That could be turned into a unique opportunity - perhaps one that will not soon recur - to try and trim a brazenly wasteful, oversized government. Even if Sharon doesn't succeed, his taking a position that the country can and should make do (like other considerably larger democracies) with a more compact cabinet will sound an important message. There's no reason for the taxpayer to fund the cost of a minister-without-portfolio (Labor's Haim Ramon) and a "minister in the Prime Minister's Office" who is equally portfolio-deficient and unemployed (Tzahi Hanegbi). We're not even going to get into the thorny issue of the vice premier post created artificially for Shimon Peres, nor of the budgetary outlay for 12 deputy ministers, some of whom don't even have a pretend purpose. We will only mention Labor's Orit Noked whose job description is "deputy to the vice premier" and Michael Melchior whose title is "deputy minister in the Prime Minister's Office." This is too reminiscent for comfort of the BBC comedy classic Yes, Minister, whose protagonist held the meaningless office of minister for administrative affairs. Neither he nor anyone around him knew precisely what his brief was, except to generate superfluous red tape. We see no reason why what once occupied a single ministry must be split into redundant units merely to produce jobs for the party faithful. The plain fact is that there is no need for the Science Ministry. The same goes for Tourism, Environment, and Communications. No one would miss any of the above if they were to fade away tomorrow, just as no one misses Shulamit Aloni's erstwhile Arts Ministry or the equally forgettable Economy Ministry, which Yossi Beilin once headed, and which, to his credit, he did away with. Its disappearance left no vacuum. The now influential and desirable Infrastructure portfolio was custom-tailored for none other than Sharon in 1996. Until then the country somehow survived without it. The absence of the Religious Affairs Ministry, eliminated under pressure from Shinui, is hardly unbearable. The spendthrift inventiveness to which our politicians resort at our expense, to satisfy personal ambitions and concoct slender majorities, is an embarrassment to our political system. Sharon can only earn the public's gratitude if he is seen as preferring the voters' interests to those of backbenchers chasing power and portfolios. Those parties or individual ministerial-aspirants who cry foul will thereby risk inviting voter disapproval.